The Rationality of Intimacy

I can imagine many people might think the title of this post means it will be all about love, sex and such. Well, not exactly. It’s about relationships – but not merely limited to the exclusive kind of relationship two lovers who might be married might have.

It also isn’t about cheating husbands or wives. So what is this post about? (is there anything left? 👿 )

Well, I almost hate to break it to you: It’s about how relationships interact with language. 😐 I know: It’s just what you were afraid of. Abstract and dry, when you were thinking you might finally get hot and steamy. Sorry, Charlie. 🙁

The rest of you, however, might still find this post somewhat amusing and entertaining – so please: Do read on! 😀

Most of what I have been writing about above is expressed in a plain and simple language – the kind of talk you might expect to exchange with someone while walking around town. But there are many other people on earth than the folks you might meet while out and about socializing. You are probably more intimate with some people, and less intimate with other people. Another way of saying this is that your close friends are close relationships, and that your more distant friends are distant relationships (and in this sense closeness doesn’t really refer to geographical distance, but rather to the level of intimacy in the relationship).

Although few people would actually be surprised to hear me say so, most people don’t seem to think much about how intimacy plays a role in language and communication. However, I do think we talk significantly differently with close friends than we do with distant friends. Indeed, this is almost blatantly obvious when people consider the way they talk with their mostsignificant other“. At this degree of intimacy, the language we use almost becomes a private matter, and the meanings of expressions are like intimate secrets among utmost „insiders“.

The other extreme is more complicated linguistically. There is really no exact point at which someone is an extreme foreigner. If they do not understand our language at all – well, that would be close… but they might still smile or understand us in some similar intuitive manner. Even a dog or a cat could recognize if someone is happy, sad, hurt or maybe something else. Maybe other life forms – other animals or even plants – can understand something. Perhaps only a rock would be totally unperturbed if we tried to communicate something to it.

But let’s leave such extreme cases aside, and focus on cases where we might be able to assume we „speak the same language“. You might be aware that speaking the same language is not a simple and straightforward matter. Some people might only know a few words (and might be able to answer a question like „Do you speak English?“ with „Yes“ or „No“ – indeed: answering „no“ seems to be a little ironic, because the question was apparently correctly understood and appropriately answered).

Let’s consider the case in which someone might answer „Yes – a little“ to be the most distant relationship possible. This is the least intimate case – the „world-wide“ friend. We think of these acquaintances – or even faceless people – essentially as stick-figures with a pocket-dictionary of maybe one or two hundred words. If we could, we would gesticulate to try to make ourselves clear. As it is, we reduce our sentences to short, simple expressions.

Between these two extremes, a vast plethora of social relationships exist for each of us. In order to manage the complexity, we also maintain a repertoire of languages – or sub-languages, if you will: jargons (one jargon for each community, each type of kind of social relationship). Let me illustrate this with an example that should be familiar to most people familiar with popular sports. Let’s take soccer – or football, as it’s called in most of the English-speaking world outside of the United States. When football fans are watching a game on TV or listening to a match on the radio, and they hear the announcer scream „GOAL!“ then they are normally quite certain about what that means. Note that it is a keepers objective to keep a ball out of the goal – in other words: his (or her) goal is to keep the ball from crossing the line. Likewise: in other contexts, people might use the word „goal“ in a different sense than the very specific meaning given to the term in this context.

This is by no means an exceptional case. We speak differently with our children than we speak with our neighbors. We speak differently with our colleagues at work than we speak with government officials. Through role-playing scripts we understand that the number the person at the checkout just said means the amount we have to pay for our groceries. Such limits on language in particular situations makes communication more efficient.

Whereas humans can easily recognize a vast variety of contexts, this is not so – or at least not yet so – for the vast majority of „artificial intelligence“ – machines, computers, smartphones, robots, etc. For these mounds of metal and silicon chips, sweitches are either on or off – independent of context. Explaining context in a string of true-or-false bits is probably no easy matter, either. Machines require all minutiae explicated in complete detail. Everything must be formally expressed.

Perhaps artificial intellegence is the antithesis – the diametrical opposite – of intimacy?

Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. In any case it’s not a human thing. It can very useful to have such machines to tally up numbers – because they can be completely cool-headed and disengaged. My point here is not to argue for or against man or machine. My focus is 100% human – and the point is this: humans behave, engage and communicate differently in different contexts.

A one-size fits-all algorithm that is applied equally in all contexts will quite probably miss the mark completely in many contexts.

We should not try to mold humans into forms made for robots. If computers cannot understand humans, then that is a shortcoming of computers – not the other way around. We can still celebrate machines for their ability to perform some tasks, but we should not be so foolish to think that their abilities in some contexts makes them a suitable technology for all contexts.

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You can reach me at the Internet

People who say stuff like „you can reach me at“ this or that URL – and then even name a URL they don’t manage themselves – are quite disingenuous… or even just plain outright bogus.

No, I can’t reach you at Facebook or Instagram or Whatever. I can reach other people – who may or may not notify you.

Yet, to be honest: I don’t even want to reach you. If you want to engage with me, just use the Internet. I am online. Share stuff you care about. If you don’t care, then never mind. 🙂

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The Rationality of Buzz

It’s early on a Monday morning – I would say “bright and early”, but it’s so early that the sun is still nowhere in sight. At any rate, the week is about to begin and so I figure it’s a good time to think about the barrage of buzz that is about to stream into mailboxes, land on doorsteps, and influence consumers via video screens across town, throughout the nation and all over the world-wide web.

One thing particularly nice about Sundays is the peace and quiet that settles in once last week’s buzz has piddled down to only a slight murmur echoing through the last few talk shows with nothing better to do than to rehash old buzz. By Sunday afternoons, the world has pretty much come to a stop and there is so little or even no new news whatsoever. Humanity has essentially stopped producing facts and by Sunday evenings one can observe that even though humans have not yet completely died out, there is practically nothing noteworthy to say anymore. Sunday evenings are really only surpassed by late August insofar as the dearth of buzz goes.

But never fear: Monday morning is near! The well-oiled fact-producing machinery is ready to run with incoming factoids and produce a plethora of buzzworthy content for hungry consumers ready to devour tidbits and lengthy articles, stories, analyses and whatnot alike. Empty minds need to be filled with buzz.


Well, the best answer is probably: It’s complicated.

You need to realize that the vast majority of what minds in the developed world consume is buzz. Mass production of buzz has been the daily (or nearly daily) media diet of developed consumers for well over a century already. Today, facts are churned out at breathtaking speed – far faster than eyes or ears alone can consume them. Luckily, smartphones have been developed which can also consume vast amounts of data lickity-split, and so the plethora of data can find homes in these handheld robotic assistants for their masters to feel superior over more and more bits of information, whether they are actually able to derive any meaning from them or not.

Most buzz is not intended to improve your understanding of anything. Do any Google search at all, and you will probably find that the top 10 results are all more or less equally meaningless. Of course you could ask the Google Guys what “2+2” is, and then they might tell you it’s “4” – but that would, I guess, be more the exception than the rule. The vast majority of results to the overwhelming majority of searches will probably give you a sense that the world is immensely complex and that there is little or no hope to finding a simple and direct answer to the very particular question you might have at any moment. In exasperation, the searcher clicks on something, and the goal is for the lost user to click on something that might earn Google a dime – or even better: a buck.

One needs to remember, though, that Google is only one of the latest entrants in the race for facts. News publishers have, as I alluded to above, been producing this crap for over a century already. Why are we still racing so feverishly for facts? Well, because last week’s facts are now no longer relevant as they were last week. Apart from dull truths, most facts are only really useful for short spans of time – somewhere from a few milliseconds to maybe half a minute. After that, everything needs to be recalculated – and that is why people continue asking Google all sorts of questions. The funny thing is: because Google is able to make money regardless of where people click on their ads – in other words, ads delivered to almost any webpage, the Google brand is not really damaged when the naive novice user clicks on an ad for a get-rich-quick scheme on some other website. If the naive novice newbie gets upset that their computer has now apparently made a mistake, then they will probably blame the mistake on “that darn website” rather than on Google. The Google Guys can write home: “Look ma, no risk!” 😀 The fact that Google recommended the website is probably long forgotten, and the fact that Google earned a buck or maybe even more from the click never enters the mind of the ordinary naive novice newbie – and if it ever did (as by reading this sentence), then it will probably be dismissed as far-fetched, out of the ordinary, and perhaps even merely a conspiracy theory. 😐

How did it ever come to this?

Again: It’s complicated.

Even though news publishing has only really exploited this “propaganda” technique for about one century, the history of the basic foundation dates back several centuries – all the way to the invention of the “movable type” printing press over five centuries ago. Movable type made it possible to make different sentences rather easily – and therefore it became much easier to revise old truths and also to formulate new truths (such as that the Earth is not at the center of the universe).

Yet for several centuries, the main problem was not so much a dearth of publishing facts as a lack of literacy to consume them. From 1450 to at least 1750 – that’s three centuries – the rate of (reading) literacy was quite close to zero. Even by 1850, the literacy needle had hardly moved at all. It is quite probable that this was due to the still quite high costs associated with literature. In the latter half of the 19th Century, two advances in publishing technology made literature far more affordable to acquire: wood-based paper and offset printing, By the end of the 19th Century, the rates of literacy in many industrialized countries had begun to increase significantly.

Yet it would be a great distortion of the historical record to maintain that reading and writing were in any way equal. Throughout the 20th Century, only very few writers wrote for increasing numbers of readers… and at the beginning of the 20th Century, the “publishing industry” as it was known throughout the century was formed with a view to feeding the masses of followers published facts.

It was not until the advent of the Internet, that questioning the publishing of facts by the few for the many was even a possibility in any meaningful way. Even though some schools did teach more and more pupils more and more writing skills, there was simply no technical capability to publish literature in any significant way. What is more: copyright law further cemented the publishing industry into a cornerstone position with respect to the supply of published facts.

Nonetheless, it would also be a grave distortion of the historical record to maintain that nothing of any significance changed in the 20th Century. In contrast: The publishing industry made very significant advances in the science of propaganda. Most of these have to do with increased understanding of the psychology of consumers, and perhaps the most significant insight is the very well known insight gained from Pavlov’s dog – namely that you can “train” animals (and people) to believe something by conditioning their belief system. Just as Pavlov was able to train his dog to salivate when he rang a bell, so today you can train people to think facts are true by associating them with other facts (such as today’s date, the author’s name, a specific location where an article was written, etc.). Beyond that, it is also possible to habitualize head-nodding behavior by increasing the number of facts, however inconsequential – for example, by listing the estimated temperatures in various locations across the country.

The more often you ring the truth bell, the more likely the consumer is to click when they see an advertisement.

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In a recent podcast episode, Eliza Rubin mentioned „voluntourism“ (see episode #28 for her explanation of the term). Here, I want to apply the concept to the web / internet / online space – so basically: virtual voluntourism.

In my opinion, this is what happens when someone asks people to visit a particular web address to perform some kind of supposedly good deed. For example: „Visit itunes and rate this podcast“ or „Visit facebook and like our page“, or maybe „post a comment“, „send us an email“ or „follow me“ or whatever.

I don’t need to visit google or gmail or whatever someone wants me to visit. If you like google or some other website, then that is perfectly fine with me – but don’t ask me to care about sites you seem to be fans of. You can be a fan of whatever site all you want, but don’t ask me to share your point of view. Anyway: If I were to do so because you asked me to, it would be meaningless.

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Global Languages (and/or Classification Schemes) + Generic Top Level Domains (TLDs)

Whereas traditional classification schemes (such as the Dewey Decimal Classification [DDC] or the Library of Congress classification scheme [LC]) have primarily been oriented towards topical segmentation of publications published by individual persons or corporate entities, I feel it is now a pretty safe bet that the landscape of generic top-level domains is instead oriented towards segmenting information based on a palette of various communication types, in other words segments of interactions or engagement types used in the broader field of general communications. One might think of this as on par with the „speech act“ theories developed in the latter half of the 20th Century, though using the world-wide web the focus is not interpersonal communication, but rather open and public communications.

Several years ago, I posted a „guesstimate“ of what com, net and org represent. Now I want to attempt to expand this to more / all generic domains. This is what I have so far:

  • com = commerce + commercials (ads + advertising)
  • net = networking
  • org = organizations (i.e. corporate entities – originally primarily „non-profit“)
  • info = reference, lookup services (e.g. publications created on behalf of communities or community services)
  • biz = small business
  • name = naming + classification (originally primarily personal names / brands)
  • tel = contact / directory
  • pro = paid / professional services

Note the omission of „gov“ and „edu“ (and „travel“, „museum“, etc.) – this is not an oversight; I consider these „proprietary“ top level domains. Going forward, the vast majority of top-level domains will probably be proprietary. The number of generic top level domains may even be fixed from this point onwards, as this type of registry (i.e. „generic“ registries) is (are) apparently no longer being planned.

However, the above list may in fact not be exhaustive. Likewise, the descriptions are highly speculative and should probably be considered more as „suggested“ rather than as descriptive or prescriptive.

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